by Chad Jewett
Direct Effect scratches an itch you probably didn’t even know you had. Sunburn, their first album for Tiny Engines (a label that’s having an immense 2014 so far), will likely play itself through before you finish your drive from Point A to Point B; but it’s seemingly built for you to not even notice when it starts over. Or care. Binding the id of 80’s hardcore to the ego of Nuggets-vintage garage rock and the super ego of revivalist post-punk, the record plays like the sharpened edge of all three.
Album opener “Permanent Vacation” begins with feedback squall and big-gesture slabs of minor chord attack. Clocking in at three minutes and change, and thus serving as the longest track on the album, you already get a sense of Direct Effect’s penchant for brushing away any and all expectations for how this particular aesthetic works. Because we all know the longest song goes last: here it is right up front. Because we all know that garage punk records start with sprints: here’s Direct Effect’s version of a marathon.
The song’s middle eight pairs rhythm section clutter with echoed out screams and prickly guitar discord until the whole thing collapses back into forward-leaning fuzz-core thump. It’s an artful way of dealing with how a breakdown works. Direct Effect might try to convince you that this stuff is all about blitzed confusion, but “Permanent Vacation” is actually a tightly-wound, wholly controlled pop song, albeit one that regularly dips into atonal feedback shards and all-vowel shouts. But when everything but a single guitar drops out before the song’s final blast, you realize this is a band whose instincts are honed and smart as hell. It’s the same trick that fifty Motown songs use (i.e., the platonic ideal for tune-craft). Direct Effect knows how a song works. They just feign not caring. It’s the same ethos that produces a song titled “[ ]” (how would you shout for this one live? “Brackets!”?), but also makes sure it’s one of the record’s best.
“Digested” similarly hides its flare for deconstruction beneath rusted-up punk trappings. You’re at once fooled by the song’s downhill stomp until you realize those garage guitars are working in 5/4, that the whole thing is pitched decidedly left of center. “Unknown Disorder” is similarly clever in its rhythmic games: guitars and snare hits flare out at oblique angles with a physicality that’s a great deal more nimble than you might first suspect. Direct Effect is a band that seems to approach a punk song with an almost obsessive desire to pull it apart and glue it back together, like a collage of magazine clippings. Jabs of guitar hit like elbows, but they land at odd slants, as if one of the band’s major foci was avoiding first and second instincts. “Moderate Rock” (Nirvana reference?) exemplifies this, a song that spends most of its time ably exploding in triple speed until its inevitable breakdown uncoils not into “dun-dun-DUN-DUN” ominousness but instead opts for a Blood Brothers-like swing, papered over with torn guitar confetti. Quite generously, Direct Effect seems perpetually willing to give you basement punk junk food, but almost never willing to leave out an interesting flavor or two, knowing exactly which taste will linger.
The band’s willful unpredictably zigs the other way on the album’s title track, the one song that does seem willing to be exactly the kind of barbed sugar rush you would expect from a band with “HC” in their Twitter handle. But when the 69-second track downshifts into its outro, there’s an inevitable guilt in expecting Direct Effect to reinvent the wheel thirteen times, underlined by the sheer pleasure-principle richness of the song’s sing-along hook. The album’s other, more rote garage-core moments – namely mid-record tracks “Yo No Quiero, ” “BWPV,” and “Solar Flare” – are similarly able to overcome easily-met expectations by over-delivering rather than re-building. When the album gets stuck in earlier bands’ grooves (Black Flag, The Plot To Blow Up The Eiffel Tower, Youth of Today, maybe even Nation of Ulysses), it simply keeps digging till it finds deeper-hidden ore. They’re the songs you might lose sight of — until you don’t.
But the thing I find most exciting about Sunburn is what it does with garage rock. As cleverly as Direct Effect plays with hardcore punk by simply attacking it from odd directions, their real strength comes when they pair that jaggedness to stuff with more rhythm in its attack. Songs like “Nostalgia” and “Commit To Memory” essentially sound like Tyrannosaurus Hives dipped in carbolic acid, maintaining the sharpness of the more punk-oriented wings of garage revival but dosing it with boosts of low-end stomp and waves of abstract distortion. “Nostalgia” resembles “Main Offender” if The Hives were listening to early SST records between sides of Devo.
“Thoughts of Honey,” the album’s closer, remains one of the best songs of young 2014. Pairing the screw-it-whatever strum of In Utero with golden-era Pixies’ stop/start, quiet/LOUD schizophrenia, the song sounds like something you’d hear on the radio, albeit with the dial halfway between stations, drenching what is ostensibly a pop song in caustic white noise. The song can’t be bothered to last three minutes but finds time to sum up the preceding record, occasionally bowing into free-form echoes, wrapping up with a four-snare punk jog, trickling away with guitar-mess feedback scratches. Like most of the record, you’ll find yourself humming the melody, a loping stretch of Iggy Pop brashness, because the lyrics sound more like vowel shapes than words. But that doesn’t mean you don’t get what the song’s talking about. Give or take. Sunburn isn’t post-meaning. It’s just post-everything-else. Direct Effect is a band that might try to convince you it can’t be bothered, but I’m not expecting to come across a more perversely ideal punk record this year.